With Chris Townley
During late June and early July 1966, a number of Marine recon units operating south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) observed increasing numbers of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops operating in the area. Believing that this was a prelude to larger operations a plan was drawn up to move a Marine task force into the area under the title Operation Hastings. Meanwhile ARVN forces would simultaneously launch Operation Lam Son 289 in the areas to the south of the Marines.
The plan was to move Marine units via helicopter to the southwestern end of the Song Ngan River Valley to establish a blocking position. Additional units would then take over-watch and security positions.
The attack started on the morning of the 15th of July with A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms bombing two landing zones in preparation for the arrival of the Marines. Artillery continued the bombardment once the aircraft had moved on. The Marine forces landed and proceeded to move on their various objectives, capturing a 200-bed hospital and 1200 rounds of ammunition. NVA forces pushed back but a combination of artillery and tactical air support for the NVA to retreat.
By the end of the day the operation had already cost 18 Marine lives due to a mix of NVA ground fire and helicopter crashes thanks to the small size of the LZ. The Marines renamed Song Ngan as “Helicopter Valley”.
On the 16th Marine forces traded fire with NVA units as mortar fire was answered by artillery and airstrikes. Close range engagements in the evening proved decisive as the Marines weathered heavy grenade fire whilst killing over 79 enemy troops. Force Recon troops were lifted to the summit of “the Rockpile”, a steep hill composed almost entirely of rock. This made the task of creating fighting positions extremely difficult, however its size and location made it an excellent observation post. From this position the Force Recon Marines managed to call in artillery and airstrikes on NVA forces seen moving nearby.
Over the next two days the Marine forces were redeployed to provide new blocking positions in preparation for further actions. During these re-deployments NVA forces caught elements of Company K, 3/4 Marines as they were preparing to leave from LZ (Landing Zone) Crow, the initial landing zone from the start of the Operation. Under intense fire elements were recalled to lend support and secure the perimeter. Close range engagements, broken up by well-directed artillery fire managed to break the attacking NVA forces. Captain Robert Modrzejewski, CO of Company K and Sergeant John McGinty commander of the 1st Platoon would each be awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Operation.
Between the 19th and 25th of July the Marines continued to fight smaller skirmishes throughout the valley, interspersed by intense close-range engagements and prolonged enemy mortar fire.
By the end of the month Marine forces began to withdraw from the Valley, leaving recon patrols behind to continue harassing enemy units with artillery strikes. The operation officially concluded on the 3rd of August leaving NVA forces to disperse back across the DMZ.
General Lewis William Walt (a four-star General that served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force) described the NVA troops encountered during Operation Hastings as follows: “We found them well-equipped, well-trained and aggressive to the point of fanaticism. They attacked in massed formations and died by the hundreds“.